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Telling Maori Stories

Auckland, 5 October 2006
For Immediate Release

Telling Maori Stories

‘The three essential ingredients of the old forms of Maori Storytelling are the waiata - the song, whakapapa - the genealogy of the story, and the karakia - the prayer,’ said Ngamaru Raerino as he welcomed the audience and panellists, Briar Grace-Smith, Brad Haami, Larry Parr, and MC Te Arepa Kahi, to the September Writer’s Room, ‘Telling Maori Stories’. Ngamaru stressed the importance that was given to detail and correct presentation in the past. Maori storytellers risked life threatening outcomes if they lacked skill at their craft. The consequences of poor storytelling may have changed, but all panellists agreed that ‘getting it right’ is still an essential element when telling Maori stories today.

‘For me, Maori stories come from the ethos found within the inner circle of Maoridom,’ said Brad Haami. ‘If you write from outside that circle, then you are looking at it the wrong way. You have to be in the middle …find a doorway in … to these experiences.’ Brad has worked as a consultant on many projects and explained the value of having an expert on hand to help writers understand Maori characters and their motivations. Larry Parr echoed these sentiments saying that mistakes are often made on Maori productions and this is problematic for a culture that relies heavily on the spoken word. ‘When your history is an oral one, you can’t afford to have people out there who don’t get the information right,’ said Larry. ‘If you don’t get it right, you are going to distort our history.’

But being protective does not mean that Maori stories cannot be brought into the modern world. In Fish Skin Suit, Briar created what she describes as ‘contemporary mythology’. While working on an episode of the Mataku series, Brad gave a futuristic look to an ancient character. ‘We decided to use a modern image to show something very ancient and created this Terminator-like taniwha. It doesn’t matter what the character looks like, as long as we keep the Maoriness in their heart.’

The development of characters that are believable and true is important in any story and this is particularly pertinent in Maori stories. ‘I look at it from a Maori audience point of view,’ said Brad. ‘Would my grandmother or my dad or my cousin watch this and believe it?’ Briar explained that she pushes boundaries and breaks stereotypes while still trying to create characters Maori will understand and relate to.

Briar Grace-Smith took her script The Strength of Water to the Sundance Lab in Utah. She creates characters Maori will relate to but finds that the cultural aspects are still well understood and appreciated by international audiences. ‘The tikanga and the reo were not an issue [at Sundance],’ Briar said. ‘Never once did someone say that they didn’t understand, and I think that is a fantastic sign that our audience is a lot bigger than we realise.’

As Te Arepa Kahi noted, the currency of indigenous storytelling has never been as strong, locally and globally, as it is right now.


About Script to Screen

Script to Screen is an independent, industry wide initiative, established to develop the culture of screenwriting in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Script to Screen is a charitable trust that is core funded by the New Zealand Film Commission and governed by a board of trustees. Our trustees are appointed by the New Zealand Writers Guild, Nga Aho Whakaari, and the New Zealand Film Commission.

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